The Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Hos 2:16-17, 21-22; 2 Cor 3:1-6; Mk 2:18-22]
A young newly appointed rabbi was dismayed to find serious divisions and quarrels among his people. During Friday evening services half of them would stand while the other half would sit. All semblance of decency and decorum was lost one day when they shouted at each other to follow their way of praying. Members of each side insisted theirs was the correct tradition. The young rabbi decided to seek guidance. He took a representative from each side to visit the ailing eighty year old rabbi who was founder of that synagogue. One representative said, “Rabbi, isn’t it true that our tradition is always to stand at this point in the service?” The old man replied, “No, that is not the tradition.” The other representative began gloating and said, “See, we are right, the tradition is to be seated.” The old man replied again, “No, that isn’t the tradition either.” At this the young rabbi cried out, “How can this be? What we have now is complete chaos. Half the people stand and shout while the other half sits and screams.” “Aha,” exclaimed the elder, “that is the tradition!”
Conflict! Some of the earliest stories of Jesus are about conflicts over traditions. Disciples of the Pharisees were on a neighborhood watch, and Jesus was at the center of their attention. They watched and were appalled when he invited tax collectors and sinners to a meal in his house. Talking behind his back they criticized Jesus, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard their complaints and his reply seemed complimentary, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” They were righteous. But they were not so sure about Jesus.
Their neighborhood watch continued. Will Jesus have a good influence on sinners or will sinners corrupt Jesus? Soon they had an answer. Jesus and his disciples were not fasting according to custom. Even though the Law only required one fast day a year-on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, common piety and devotion went beyond minimum observance to fast twice a week. So people confronted Jesus face to face. “The disciples of John and the Pharisees fast but yours don’t. How come?” Jesus replies, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? Is new cloth sewn on an old cloak? Is new wine put in old wineskins?” This time he offers them no compliments. He compares them to stiff, dried out wineskins; torn, worn out cloaks; outsiders who were missing the happiest of life’s events, a wedding feast. Above all else, Jesus reveals in an oblique way “the most intimate secret of his Heart,“his identity as Bridegroom. He is our divine Lover whose journey will lead him through death to Resurrection and his eternal wedding feast with us. Here, tucked away in a short conflict story in Mark’s Gospel we discover that our great destiny is to be God’s bride.
The more important meaning of Jesus’ words went over their heads. That often happens in conflicts when we don’t listen to what someone is saying. Like the day an attorney questioned a medical examiner who was on the witness stand. The defense attorney said, “Doctor, do you remember at what time you examined the body?” The doctor replied: “The autopsy started around 8:30 p.m.” “And was the man dead at the time?” Amused the doctor said, “No, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy.” Frowning, the attorney continued, “Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?” “No.” “Did you check for blood pressure? “No.” “Did you check for breathing?” “No.” “So, you didn’t check these common signs of life. Isn’t it possible that the patient was still alive when you began the autopsy?” “No.” “Doctor, how can you be so sure?” He replied, “Because his brain was sitting in a jar on my desk.” The attorney continued, “But couldn’t the patient have had some life in him?” “Yes,” the medical examiner said, “it is possible he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere.” In our conflicted hearts and lives do we miss what God is trying to tell us, that we are his bride?
Yahweh spoke plainly to the prophet Hosea, revealing that he felt like a jilted Lover abandoned by a prostitute wife who acted like a swift she-camel running here and there, or like a wild donkey sniffing the wind in her heat with unrestrained craving.
The story of Jesus is a love story. He is the Bridegroom pursuing his wayward bride. He would have us strip off our torn, soiled garments so that he can wash us clean and clothed our nakedness with himself. He wants us to discard our sour wine and cracked wineskins so that the outpouring of his blood on the cross can fill our hearts with the new wine of his divinity. Encountering Jesus means encountering our Lover who will wipe away every tear from our eyes and bring us to a new heaven and an new earth where death shall be no more, where there will be rejoicing and happiness when our wedding night with God begins.
Baptism is our wedding with God. But like a wartime wedding, after which the young husband has to leave immediately for combat on the front lines, Jesus, our Bridegroom, was taken away to combat on the cross. We suffer from his absence, he is hidden from our sight. We long to see his face and be embraced. This is not a time to run about like a she-camel or wild donkey in heat, intent only on our own pleasures. Rather, it is a time to willingly join in his sufferings, to fast from what is evil so that when our wedding night comes he will receive us into the intimacy of God’s home, to enjoy the sweet, warm companionship of his love.
This Lent, let us put off the torn garments of contentiousness and cast aside the cracked wineskins of conflicts. Let us fast from whatever separates us from the Lord and experience what it means to be hungry for God.